CHICAGO—After two terrible elections when independent voters turned away from the GOP and the party lost control of the White House and the Senate, Republicans finally have a little spring back in their step thanks to a health care debate that has done more to cool off Obama-mania and re-ignite the conservative base than even most of its leaders had hoped.
"Republicans have quickly recovered their voice," Rep. Mark Kirk, whose Senate campaign in Illinois has many Republicans eying a pick up, told POLITICO.
Kirk joined party leaders here this week at the second annual GOPAC conference, where they worked with state legislators to develop a unified GOP strategy and message on heath care. The timing of the conference could hardly have proven better for the group, as the backlash to Democarats' health care plans has enthusiasm in Republican ranks at its high water mark of President Barack Obama's six-and-a-half months in office.
The president's approval ratings have seemingly been in free fall this summer, hitting new lows nearly every week. In addition, a USA Today/Gallup poll released last week shows that independent voters are more than twice as likely to sympathize with town hall protesters as they are to be turned off by them.
"The issue mix right now could not be better for us, with the public worried about big spending, high taxes and big government. If ever there was a mixture of issues that could benefit Republicans it would be that, just like in 2008 we probably had the worst issue mix we could have ever had," GOPAC chairman and longtime GOP insider Frank Donatelli said in an interview.
"For the first time in six years, the level of enthusiasm and intensity among our party members is higher than the other side, and you cannot overestimate how important that is," Donatelli said. "Independents are lining up with us and not Democrats, and that's a sea change."
The conference's two top speakers, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Minnesota GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty, spoke optimistically of a Republican rebound pegged to an overreach by the President and Democrats in Congress.
"It appears that President Obama is making great progress on climate change, he is changing the political climate in the country back to Republican," Pawlenty said in his speech to the group.
Despite the enthusiasm, some of those charged with leading a Republican comeback recognize that the drop in the president's approval rating and the surge of grassroots energy and anger of display at recent town halls across the country is an opening that the party hasn't yet been able to rush through.
But that enthusiasm, and the dip in Obama's poll numbers, has yet to translate into a spike in Republicans' numbers.
In his speech, Pawlenty pointed to the Republican candidates' strong performances thus far in this year's two bellwether gubernatorial elections as proof that the heath care debate had revived the party's fortunes.
“We already are seeing the Republican resurgence in this country," he said, "but it is going to be affirmed and we are going to get great momentum from the victories we’re going to have in New Jersey and Virginia this fall.”
Donatelli, who seconded that prediction, also said that Republicans would pickup seats in both state houses.
"If we're deemed to be the alternative to a party that seems to be failing, that's a first step. But it's up to us to prove more than that. We have to keep coming up with some solutions that people will find credible, not just bashing Obama," said Donatelli. "The intensity is on our side for the first time since probably 2004. But you know you have got to crawl before you walk, and walk before you run."
"Every issue they've picked is on our turf, whether it's spending or deficits and certainly now with health care," he said.
Price acknowledged, as did nearly all the Republicans in attendance, that the president is likely to get some sort of health care reform package passed.
But Republicans see a chance to claim a victory if the president signs a bill that does less than he'd asked for .
"A win for us is anything that improves the current situation without damaging the good things about our system," said Price, adding that any bill that does not include a public option, employer mandates and the rationing of care could be looked at as something of a success for his party.
Giuliani offered a narrower definition of a Republican win, telling POLITICO earlier this week that if the president signs any bill that does not include a public option, he would count it as a major loss for the administration.
The former mayor and rumored New York gubernatorial candidate seems likely to reach that benchmark for a "win," as the White House appeared to signal Sunday that it was increasingly open to a bill without a public option.
“If the White House had proposed the plan, it would basically be the same plan," he told POLITICO on Thursday.
"But would they have looked better doing it? I think so,”he said.
The former mayor added though that it would be "counterproductive" for the GOP to try to capitalize on the issue, urging party leaders to instead wait for public sentiment to grow over a perceived Democratic overreach.
Despite the new sense of purpose the GOP has found in the health care fight, Republicans here seemed aware they'd yet to shake off the "Party of No" narrative – that they've failed to offer real alternatives, at least not ones that can be easily boiled down and sold to voters.
"We have to have the best alternative," said Kirk.
The Illinois congressman blamed the media in part for not reporting on Republican plans. "The media will never cover what you're for, it's not interesting to them," he said
The town hall protests have undoubtedly breathed life into the GOP's opposition on health care. But while the leaders speaking at the GOPAC connention were drawing applause by calling for tort reform and the right to pool risk across state lines, the press narrative and the party base were turned into former Alaska GOP Gov. Sarah Palin's Facebook posts, where she railed against so-called "death panels" and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel's brother.
The Republicans who spoke with POLITICO were loathe to criticize the protesters or Palin, but seemed to recognize that the party isn't so much leading a grassroots movement as it is hitching itself to an emotional backlash against the Obama administration.
"I think we're just in that phase," Price said of the anger on display at town halls. "Issues go through phases, and this is the phase where people say 'oh my goodness I didn't realize that's what it was, I'm not for that.' The next steps will be to try to get them embrace some of the principles that I've been talking about."